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Interviews Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo. Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

The time to do Cuban punk is now

Being punk in Cuba is nothing like being punk in Spain. And, at the same time, it is the same. The rebellious style, the aggressive music without many melodic complexities, and the maxim that the street teaches everything there is to know to get what it has to offer from the guitar, are truths that the punks of the Island defend with the same passion as to your instruments. Here, the important thing is to play.

Esa magia llegó hasta la española Carmen Torre Pérez, que cursa el quinto año de su doctorado en Estudios Hispanos en Estados Unidos y quien —por esas razones raras del destino— se interesó por el sonido cubano, convirtiéndose en la gestora de Punk Cubano, un proyecto que reúne en un sitio web una parte importante de la producción de este género en el país. A la par, Carmen desarrolla  un documental sobre este género en Cuba. Sobre este viaje y los descubrimientos que le ha aparejado, nos cuenta.

Carmen Torre Pérez. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Carmen Torre Pérez. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

What is your relationship with music and punk in particular? Why create a project on the Cuban scene?

“Mi relación con la música alternativa y con el punk ha sido siempre muy estrecha. Durante mi infancia, mi padre tocó en diversas bandas de metal, y junto con mi madre regentaba un bar rockero, por lo que desde niña he recibido muchas influencias de la música y cultura underground. De adolescente comencé a involucrarme con el movimiento punk de mi ciudad (Santander, Cantabria) y desde entonces he procurado conocer las distintas escenas de los lugares que he visitado y en los que he vivido.

“The interest in doing a project on Cuban punk was born in a quite casual way. At the end of 2015, the University of Kansas, where I was studying at that time, was offering scholarships to do research in Latin American and Caribbean countries, aimed at novice researchers who had little experience working in these areas. I wanted to take the opportunity of this scholarship to get to know Cuba and, given my general interest in punk, I thought about developing a project related to the country's alternative musical cultures. I had tried to find some information about it on the Internet, but I barely got results, so the subject began to interest me more and more: was there a punk culture on the Island? Why was it so difficult to find information about him on the networks?

“Teniendo en cuenta además que el contexto era tan diferente del de los países donde primero había surgido el punk (como Inglaterra o Estados Unidos), ¿qué podría caracterizar a la escena punk cubana? Después de mucho tiempo en Google, conseguí el contacto de una banda de hardcore-punk de Trinidad llamada Arrabio. Con la ayuda de su guitarrista, William García, elaboré una pequeña red de contactos a los que entrevistaría durante mi viaje para poder saber más sobre la historia y la situación del punk cubano. Mi proyecto tuvo buena acogida, recibí la beca y me embarqué en mi primer viaje a Cuba en diciembre de 2015.

“Una vez que comencé a saber más sobre este universo, me di cuenta de que era una cultura súper rica y muy diferente a la de otras escenas más conocidas. Como había podido experimentar antes, apenas existían datos o música disponible on-line y prácticamente nadie del mundo académico se había dedicado a investigar este tema. Así que decidí enfocarme en llenar ese vacío. Convertí a la cultura punk de Cuba en el tema central de mi tesis doctoral y llevo casi cinco años, desde aquel primer viaje, tratando de hacerla más accesible y conocida fuera de las fronteras del país”.

What cannot be left out of any investigation like this and what are the most complicated moments?

“Lo esencial en una investigación de este tipo es el trabajo etnográfico. No existen archivos oficiales a los que una pueda acudir en busca de información, y tampoco hay apenas textos que hablen sobre esta historia (salvo algunas excepciones, como los libros de Humberto Manduley López sobre el rock en Cuba). Para saber de la cultura punk de la Isla, hay que encontrarse con los punks cubanos. Ha sido a través de muchos ratos de observación y de numerosas entrevistas personales que he podido conocer sobre el contexto, las experiencias y la historia de la comunidad punk del país. Estos contactos me dieron acceso a las grabaciones musicales que hay disponibles, permitiéndome compartir todo esto públicamente. Su deseo de ayudar y sus ganas de dar a conocer su trabajo fuera de sus fronteras han sido, en realidad, lo que ha dado vida a este proyecto.

“The most complicated thing about an investigation like this is navigating all the difficulties that life in Cuba implies. On the one hand, traveling to the island from the United States carries many restrictions. On the other hand, within the country it is often difficult to comply with a travel itinerary: transportation is scarce, telephone or Internet communications are complicated ... Many times the initial work plan has to be rethought, and on more than one occasion there have been concerts that have been canceled or interviews already scheduled that I have not been able to carry out ”.

Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

What things have surprised you in this research?

“Sin dudas, el evento más sorprendente de la historia del punk en Cuba con el que me he tropezado es el hecho de que, a principios de los ’90, varios de los miembros de esta comunidad decidieron contagiarse voluntariamente con el VIH para ingresar en uno de los ʽsanatorios del Sida’ que regentaba el Estado. En entrevistas y conversaciones informales he recibido respuestas distintas en torno a las razones que llevaron a estos jóvenes a contraer esa enfermedad: algunos querían huir del servicio militar y de la persecución policial; otros buscaban un espacio al margen de la sociedad donde poder sentirse más libres de ser ellos mismos; y estaban los que buscaban la garantía de un techo y comida en una época en la que todo escaseaba.

“At that time it was not clear how serious a disease like AIDS was, and most of the punks who injected themselves with the virus died over the years.

“Sobre esto se han publicado algunos materiales e invito a quien quiera saber más a que busque el podcast Los sobrevivientes, de Luis Trelles, donde encontrará el testimonio de Gerson y Yohandra, dos de las pocas personas autoinfectadas que todavía viven”.[1]

How is the Cuban punk?

“It has been very influenced by the punk of Spain and Latin America, but it has adapted successfully to the Cuban reality. Musically speaking, he has an aggressive, fast and simple style. One of the maxims of this community is that you don't have to be a musician to be able to play punk. The punks of Cuba have not studied music and often have to play with instruments in terrible conditions. This translates into a raw, amateur sound that serves as a vehicle for a direct message — which can range from the harshest social criticism to entertainment and party themes. Beyond music, the punk community in Cuba is supportive and almost familiar. There are not many bands, so everyone knows each other, and if they have managed to survive during all these years it is thanks to having woven networks of solidarity among the members of the scene themselves, sharing spaces, resources, and music altruistically " .

Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

Photo: Samuel Reina Calvo.

What distinguishes punk on the island and what does it have in common with that of other countries?

"Punk in Cuba arises in a very different context from, for example, pioneering bands at a global level like The Ramones or Sex Pistols, which began their careers in the late '70s. On the island, the revolutionary government had dedicated itself to censoring and criminalizing all artistic forms of American influence, so punk emerged much later, in the early '90s, also coinciding with the fall of the Soviet bloc and during the outbreak of the crisis of the Special Period, in a context where it was difficult to access this type of music.

“If something distinguishes punk from Cuba, it is its alternative look at the country's history of the last 30 years. Punk, in its different scenes, is 'localized' and always adapts to the reality of each place. In the Cuban case, therefore, it is a tool to speak critically of the island scene. While things have improved, the punk community is still stigmatized, censored and ignored by the government. In addition, compared to the scenes of the global north, it lives a more precarious situation. The economic scarcity of the country, together with the blockade imposed by the United States, make it extremely difficult to obtain musical material, record and distribute compositions or even give concerts.

“Of the commonalities between the Cuban and foreign scenes, I can mention the oppositional and anti-system philosophy. Both the English punk of the late '70s and the Cuban of the Special Period coincide in that they explode in moments of great crisis, led by a young generation that feels displaced by the system and that has lost any perspective for the future ”.

How much has Cuban punk told about his country?

“It is a window open to the reality of lower-class Cubans and marginalized communities and, therefore, it has told a lot of what the official story leaves out. In this sense, I believe that Cuban punk is very valuable as a socio-historical document, and I trust that knowing this subculture better will help to understand in greater depth the complexity of life in Cuba ”.

What repercussion has the diffusion of the music of Cuban bands had in the world?

"I think the Cuban punk is still in the process of becoming known and is a little early to know the impact it will have in a few years. But one thing is clear: it is a subject that arouses great interest among the general public. In recent years, different initiatives have been born to send donations of musical material to bands and organize exchanges between Cuban and foreign groups, outside or abroad of the Island. On the other hand, since I began to share materials from my research there are many the people who have confessed to me not previously knowing that there was a punk scene in Cuba. I think the prospects for the future are promising. "

How much does your project contribute to the visualization of punk on the Island in the world?

“El objetivo general de mi proyecto es dar a conocer la música y la historia del punk de Cuba fuera del territorio nacional. La web punkcubano.net es el primer producto más acabado y ofrece un espacio digital a la música de muchas bandas que no figuraban en la red y a algunos pequeños testimonios de participantes de la escena. Además, funciona como un directorio organizado geográfica y alfabéticamente, por lo que puede ayudar tanto a los iniciados en el tema, como a quienes deseen buscar un disco o una banda específicos”.

At what stage is the documentary you are preparing?

“The documentary is currently in the editing phase, a job led by Samuel Reina Calvo, the cameraman who has been with me all this time. In February we finished recording the last necessary materials and now, with an editing script designed, we are finishing a first version. We believe that we will be able to release the documentary at the end of 2020, although everything has been delayed due to the coronavirus.

"Its purpose is to show in an audiovisual way the punk lifestyle in Cuba, and also to tell the history of this subculture through the testimonies of various participants in the scene."

How much will the Punk Cubano webpage continue to grow?

“My idea is to keep updating the band directory for life. On the one hand, I would like to add information and music about some that I know, but of which I have not yet been able to get files. On the other, if new bands emerge or new recordings are published, I want them to be reflected on the web. In fact, a few days ago I added a new album by Pólvora Soxial because its members already know about my project and they wrote to send me their latest album. I would like it to become a digital encyclopedia on punk in Cuba that people can use as a reliable reference. With regard to the video testimonials on the page, in the future, I want to add a larger selection of clips, but for the moment I will wait until we finish editing the documentary, which can also be found at the site when it is ready ”.

What do you think is the projection of punk in Cuba for the future? What could be done in the country to make this genre more visible?

“Creo que, pese a las dificultades, la proyección de futuro del punk cubano es bastante esperanzadora. A diferencia de lo que sucede en otros países (hablo sobre todo de los casos que conozco en España y Estados Unidos), donde la media de edad de los participantes ha envejecido mucho en los últimos 10 años, el punk en Cuba cuenta con una joven vanguardia bastante numerosa —sin olvidar, eso sí, que es un movimiento underground y marginal cuya popularidad siempre va a ser muy relativa. A la luz de la coyuntura actual en la Isla, donde en las calles se rumorea que se está viviendo un segundo Periodo Especial, hay quien dice que, de hecho, el momento para hacer punk es ahora”.

 

[1] La película Boleto al paraíso, del cineasta cubano Gerardo Chijona, cuenta también una versión de estos hechos.
Susana Gomes Bugallo Su plan más serio es dedicarse a escribir cuentos por el día y cantar boleros en un bar por la noche. Mientras tanto, hace un poco de uno y de lo otro. Y, de paso, algo de periodismo y marketing, que también la apasionan. Lo de la música no es negociable: necesita algún acorde siempre cerca. Y al menos siete canciones de Santi al día. More posts

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  1. Carlos Fornes says:

    Muy interesante. Magnífica idea. Realmente hay poca info sobre punk cubano. Ojalá la página crezca. Cualquier colaboración pues ahí me tienen tengo lagunas maquetas que son parte de esa historia.

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